Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Strategy

How to Get Destroyed by Wal-Mart and Amazon.com (or not.)

IMG_2025.jpg

Our recent Airstream acquisition has allowed me to patronize stores that I hadn’t considered before. “Black water” tank sanitizer tablets, for example, were not part of Ahlmann family vocabulary before last week, nor had I ever installed a brake controller or shopped for a locking hitch ball, a clever device intended to keep unapproved folks from hitching up your rig without your permission. (This is particularly relevant if you’re sleeping in it.)

It was the locking hitch ball adventure that made me wonder if local shops in small-town America stand a chance. I first purchased said device at Wal-Mart, because I was in a hurry and already picking up diapers, but the hitch lock didn’t fit. Sensing a need for expert advice, and frankly for emotional support, I pulled into a local RV Service and Parts purveyor. “Yeah, we don’t sell a lot of those,” said the man behind the counter, clearly more interested in replacing a black water tank than helping me solve the problem. “Of course you don’t,” I thought to myself on the way to the door. “You don’t sell them when you don’t carry them!” But I saved this insight for a more receptive audience, and went to the second RV shop where…

…they didn’t carry them either. I was apparently the only one in town concerned that someone would hitch up and steal my house, except for the folks at Wal-Mart who carried the item for “houses” of a different size. But at the second shop they offered to order one. Fine, I thought. Never mind that I can order one from Amazon myself. Here I can at least get help to find the right size, and still have a chance at that emotional support I came for in the first place.

But alas.

To the owner of this store, it wasn’t clear from the catalog which size would be most appropriate either. And the frustration this caused him eliminated all chances of emotional support. So I politely excused myself after 20 minutes of strolling dusty aisles of tank valves and pre-LED RV lighting fixtures.

Amazon.com, you win.

Or do they?

In a nearby town, the 3rd owner of the local bike shop greets his customers at the door. He creates community by offering guests a soda while he works on their bike. He leads rides from the shop, and coaches the high school bike team. He offers professional-style fitting sessions for a fee, and builds customer relationships like a refined politician.

Are local shops in small-town America toast? Not until Amazon.com learns how to build community, fix bicycles and coach the local bike team. In the mean time, opportunities are alive and well for small shops that do business right.

Christian

Advertisements
Standard
Entrepreneurship, Personal Growth

Your Big Idea

Aircraft taking off

 

A few years ago, I spent a day selling wine with a young salesman for a distribution company in the Midwest. I was there to represent Six Sigma Ranch in his territory, so he graciously introduced me to his accounts. After a few stops it was obvious that he was a nice guy, but not passionate about selling wine. So I asked a few questions about his life and interests as we traveled, and quickly learned his passion was flying airplanes. But he had exchanged this big idea for a sales job because it seemed more safe.

By the end of the day, he had changed his mind. He decided to quit his sales job, and start school to become a commercial airline pilot. We skipped the last account (he wouldn’t have followed up on it anyway), and instead went out for coffee to celebrate his new direction in life.

Every honest person I’ve ever asked has a big idea in mind. Some big ideas are buried, but surface with a few prying questions. Some big ideas are on the surface, because their owners are already living the dream. It seems everyone has a business, a book, a mountain or a pilot’s license in mind to conquer. But most of us never pursue our big idea. We don’t because it’s unreasonably large, or we don’t have enough resources, or it just isn’t a responsible thing to do. What if we failed? What would people think? And besides, some ideas simply can’t be done!

And that’s why most of us leave the big idea alone: It can’t be done.

But chances are it can. Think of human flight. It was widely known to be impossible until it happened.

And fortunately for most, the big idea doesn’t mean quitting a job one day, and applying for pilot school the next. Most of us can work on the big idea one little bit at a time, until it starts to make sense, and doesn’t look impossible at all.

That mountain you want to climb? Start by walking a mile each morning. The book you want to write? Write a page. Then two. The farm?  Begin by growing tomatoes in your backyard, and then chickens. And if you want to fly airplanes, celebrate with a cup of coffee and go get it done.

Christian

PS. Since I’m a person of faith, I believe big ideas come from God. He built each of us for a unique mission, and he planted a passion for that mission in our hearts so deep that it won’t go away. Most likely, that mission is too big to make sense. But, again because I’m a person of faith, I believe God gives us missions that are too big for our capacity on purpose, so he might empower us to do them, and prove that he is God. In fact, if the idea in your heart seems reasonable, it’s likely too small to be from God.

Standard
Entrepreneurship

Rattlesnakes, Mary Kay, and other Myths of Marketing

rattlesnake

 

It doesn’t matter, really, if baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adult rattlesnakes. True or not, the story spreads: “Did you know that baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous because they don’t know how to control their venom?”
Why do we share these things? Do we expect fellow humans will use greater care in the company of small snakes?  Maybe. But don’t most of us avoid engaging rattlesnakes, regardless of expected dosage? Are we trying, then, to establish ourselves as serpent experts? That could be it too. But again, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we do share snippets of story with innocent bystanders.

Consider that phenomenon in the context of business. What snippets do we share, for whatever reason, when circumstances trigger them?

Here are a few examples:

“She spent her $5,000 life savings to create a company that would give women a chance in a business world dominated by men.” – spoken of Mary Kay

“Did you know that the original recipe contained cocaine?” – spoken of Coca Cola (And true, according to Snopes.com, but no more useful than the rattlesnake story.)

“It was founded by famed Rombauer winemaker because he saw that Lake County grows better grapes than Napa Valley” – spoken of Gregory Graham Winery

“He posted hundreds of rejection slips from publishers on a nail above his desk before selling his first book.” – spoken of Stephen King

“He filed for bankruptcy after earning millions in real estate, then searched the Bible for wisdom on handling money.” – spoken of Dave Ramsey

“She left a successful career in Silicon Valley to start a sheep shearing company.” –spoken of West by Midwest founder Stephany Wilkes

We all want to share snippets of story.

Now tell us yours.

Christian

ps. The rattlesnake fact is, by the way, a myth. According to Arizona State University, baby rattle snakes are no more dangerous than adults. They just make a good story.

pps. Thank you for following and sharing our blog. We would write even if nobody was reading, but it’s even more fun because you do : )

Standard
Entrepreneurship, Personal Growth

Children, Garlic, and NVA’s

thWhen it comes to kids, three is more than two. Not just one more, but a lot more. I expected that Isabella, born in February, would change the game because Rachel and I are now outnumbered, but that’s not the main factor. The game changed because the older kids are now in preschool, kindergarten and baseball, while the little one eats 7 times per day and sleeps (or should sleep) 18 hours out of 24. That all takes a lot of time, especially when adding occasional attempts at grown-up conversations and gainful employment.

I share this as a segue to a time-saving epiphany, a “chef tip” I stumbled upon in a cookbook. “Tip # 7: Don’t peel the garlic before pressing.”

Say what?? You mean all the time I spend fumbling to extract those suckers from papery peel is wasted? You mean I can save several minutes and endless frustration on every spaghetti Bolognese and guacamole batch for the rest of my life? “Yes,” whispered the book at my disbelief. And, sure enough, it works. Just jam the cloves into the press and give it a squeeze.

The gurus of Six Sigma process improvement call this concept (a step that adds no value) Non-Value Adding, or NVA. (They are business gurus and not poets for a reason.) NVA’s haunt life and business alike, and often go unnoticed. The garlic epiphany, and life with an 8-week-old, makes me wonder which other NVA’s are lurking in the shadows.

Christian

Standard
Entrepreneurship, Strategy

Finding THE Way to Success… Maybe.

Long Meadow Ranch in Napa Valley sells high-end agricultural products directly from the farm, from honey and lavender to meat and wine. They run a popular farm-to-table style restaurant, with classy wait staff dressed in brand-consistent plaid shirts. Long Meadow Ranch is polished all the way through, proving that success in direct-to-consumer agriculture requires significant investment, business planning, branding and marketing,..

Maybe.

Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia also sells high-end agricultural products directly from the farm. But they don’t run a restaurant , and they certainly don’t spend a lot of money on branding. In fact, founding owner Joel Salatin and his son Daniel often wear work shirts from a thrift store with other people’s names on them.   Still, the Salatins make $2 million in sales from his local, direct-to-consumer farm operation per year.

So, who’s right? Should direct-to-consumer agriculture be elaborate and polished, or scrappy and simple? Long Meadow Ranch certainly looks fancier, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Joel makes a higher profit on his simpler setup. In any case, both are successful by most standards.

It’s tempting to see a success, and assume an organization succeeded because they found THE right way to do things. But that’s rarely true. What those success stories DO have in common is they picked a direction, and kept on working at it.

Christian

Standard
Entrepreneurship

For the Love of Business

silver-birch-bark_mediumI was nine years old in the fall of 1992. It was a cool afternoon in northern Denmark, as the sun began to set behind the trees. I was working with my father in the front yard, cutting and splitting firewood for the winter.

At the end of the day, we had a substantial birch log left on the lawn.   At three feet long, it was too large to split. So my father issued a challenge; if I could saw the log in half by the following weekend, he would issue a crisp 100-kroner bill, equal to about $15.

I was on the job immediately after school on Monday. With that much money on the line (my allowance at the time was a weekly $3), the work simply had to be accomplished. But I was the smallest kid in my 4th-grade class, and it became obvious that the log would be a challenge.

My father heard my daily reports, my sinking into despair, as the weekend closed in and the log appeared triumphant. “If only I could have a bigger kid help at the other end of the bow saw,” I said one evening. My father smiled. “I told you I would pay 100 kroner when the log was cut. I didn’t make any rules about how you go about it.”

That day I learned the difference between schoolwork and the real world, a difference that cannot be overstated. In school, you have to do your own work to get the points. You have to follow the rules to complete the assignment. But the world is different. The world cares about results, not about made-up rules. The world lets you find your own assignments, as many as you want, and write your own rules. The world has customers instead of teachers, and happy customers don’t care how you got it done.

With that in mind (a lesson that I’m sure my father was pleased to stage) I hired a friend.   I paid him $3 for his efforts, and made full disclosure that I would myself pocket 4 times that amount. That fact didn’t bother him at all; he would make a week’s worth of allowance in an hour’s work (he was much larger and more effective at sawing than me), and he was quick to accept the invitation before I offered it to someone else. An entrepreneurial seed was born.

Christian

Standard